Giving Final Fantasy 10 Another Chance

Final Fantasy 10 came out at the exact wrong time in my life. I was about to be a senior in high school, and I knew video games better than anybody else on Earth. My vast knowledge of electronic entertainment could not be challenged and my opinions were as unbreakable as those of the almighty himself. In other words, I was a complete ass.

An ass who took video games so seriously that you’d think the life of my family – nay, the future of humanity itself! – were at stake if somebody made a game in a fashion I did not like. If I didn’t enjoy a game, then it was a bad game. Naturally. I was a 17-year-old child who’d lived in the same county his entire life: My tastes were cosmopolitan and universal.

Even back then, before we had awards shows in which confused actors were asked to push games they’ve never heard of in front of confused fans, I had a deep, religious sense of which games were serious and which were not. Metal Gear Solid? Serious. The most important game. Madden? Hah! A game for fools and their foolish fathers!

Final Fantasy was one of the prestige series. And. I. Knew. What. A. Final. Fantasy. Game. Was.

A Final Fantasy game was high fantasy mixed with anachronistic technology! At least, that’s what I defined the series as in my head. Let’s ignore the fact that that describes 90 percent of fantasy fiction and 99.9 percent of video games. That’s what a Final Fantasy game was. It looked a certain way (that I apparently decided). It played a certain way (that I apparently decided). It sounded a certain way (that I apparently decided).

There had also been a period in which Final Fantasy games were in short supply. After Final Fantasy 7 became a well-planned surprise hit, finding old copies of Final Fantasy, Final Fantasy 2, or Final Fantasy 3 was impossible. You had to get on a waiting list. My copy of Final Fantasy 3 (which I would never shut the fuck up about actually being Final Fantasy 6) smelled like it had been found in the coffin of a person who took all the cigarettes they had with them into the grave.

Despite almost every Final Fantasy game after five having an extremely different look and feel, I was convinced that my bullshit headcanon basis of the series was the only correct one. Final Fantasy 10 landed exactly when I was up my own ass the most about games but had the least actual knowledge of games or the industry.

And Final Fantasy 10 wasn’t Final Fantasy enough!

The setting was… sunny? Tropical? I had grown up around tropical-themed shit my whole life. The beaches, the water, the pastels – Jesus Christ, I’ve spent enough time in Miami. And the main character is a professional athlete? He plays a game called Blitzball? What the hell is going on here?

Let me be clear: I was personally offended by this, as if the developers had asked around to find the exact version of Final Fantasy that would make me clutch my pearls and whine like a spooked horse. And voice acting? Voice acting? Final Fantasy was a series in which we could read. The voices were for me to imagine! I couldn’t even rename all the main characters!

Despite saving up for the game, I played maybe eight or nine hours of it. I just couldn’t handle how foreign it felt. Not foreign nationally – I wasn’t suddenly surprised that a JRPG’s cultural touchstones didn’t all exist within the North American experience. It felt foreign like another series. The design of the characters almost felt like it was making fun of Final Fantasy 7 and 8 – taking the style and sucking out the fun.

But the person sucking out the fun was me. As Taylor Swift once said in some form but I’m too lazy to Google it, “Hello, over there, I believe I am the issue or problem regarding the subject of this song.” I was the one draining Final Fantasy 10 of the joy that existed in its overtly lovable characters and story. I was refusing to see anything interesting in its gameplay – simply because it wasn’t the same as gameplay I’d already seen.

For years, I was almost angry at its popularity. When people ranked it high in the series canon, I shook my head in disgust. Final Fantasy 10? The one about beaches? Hah! That doesn’t even compare to Final Fantasy 8, the one about a school and also sometimes beaches! I didn’t yell at anyone – I’m not on many forums and I was grossly outnumbered – but I was confused. I was confused how Final Fantasy 10 turned out this way.

I didn’t finish Final Fantasy 10 for years. In my mind, it was the point at which the series went wrong. Final Fantasy 11 wasn’t even playable for me since I didn’t have access to the money or the literal bandwidth to make it happen. Final Fantasy 12 and Final Fantasy 13 felt closer to the old games, but somehow still disconnected. The throughline had been broken. Suddenly, Nubou Uematsu wasn’t even writing the music! Tragedy upon sorrows!

Final Fantasy and I went our own ways for a while. I’d still play the old ones – “the real ones” – while shaking my head at the newer ones as pretenders to the throne. Keep in mind I also did this for the Mega Man games, but I at least had the wherewithal to know that series is silly shit. Somehow I could allow myself that not all boy robot games were for me, but not all giant yellow bird games were for me.

Over time, I began to suspect I was wrong about Final Fantasy 10. One, it remains a beloved entry in the series over 20 years since it was released. Two, I suspect I’m wrong about almost everything in this world. I picked up the HD remaster of the game, played a few hours, and lost interest. I didn’t hate it. I didn’t have a bad time, but it didn’t grab me and we went our separate ways. And again And again.

So I don’t know what’s clicked this time. The game isn’t suddenly better. If anything, it looks and feels so much worse than I remember – even with the HD remaster. But somehow seeing the seams makes it more charming. And being so distant from its release, I see what makes it a Final Fantasy game far more than I did when I thought I was the be-all-fucking-end-all expert on Final Fantasy.

The story is very Final Fantasy. It’s cute and full of misunderstandings and gruff silent characters and weirdo parent figures and some questionable romantic dialogue. The way the characters move – even when powered by the new almighty PlayStation 2 – is very Final Fantasy. They overemote and clap and dance. And while I was too busy horrified to listen closely, the music is very Final Fantasy. A new color palette and sports and technological updates (again, I had been mad about voice acting) had made me ignore that Final Fantasy 10 is far closer to the earlier entries in the series than it is to the later ones.

At the time the combat and leveling system felt broken to me. A sign that Square had tried to expand this game for a bigger audience and failed me, the true audience. Now it just felt like another exploration of the way Final Fantasy games have always worked. It stopped being a sign that the series had moved on without me and more just another entry in a series that’s often (usually) doing its best. Stripped of all the baggage, it is a pretty decent JRPG.

I needed some distance to understand it. I was so certain of what the platonic form of my favorite genre was that I stopped myself from enjoying my favorite genre. The fact I didn’t even know what the hell I was talking about didn’t keep me from skipping amazing games simply because I turned my nose up at them. Rather than embrace new things that were surprising and good, I drew a thick white line around everything I already thought was good and said, “Nothing past here.”

Final Fantasy 10 isn’t a perfect game. Nor is it an underappreciated gem by anyone other than myself. I didn’t rediscover a hidden classic. The fucking game is still everywhere, both in availability and Final Fantasy merch. If you’re reading this, you’ve almost definitely finished a game I own and have not finished yet. This isn’t an article trying to convince you to play it.

But I’m enjoying it. And I’m remembering that the rules for art we had when we were 17 doesn’t always apply to the rules for art we have now.

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